Not 'Just in Your Head': California Rolls Out Mental Health Guides for Coping With Coronavirus

State Surgeon General Nadine Burke Harris urged Californians to eat right and get some outdoor exercise to reduce mental stress - while practicing good social distancing, of course. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Gov. Gavin Newsom opened his daily briefing Tuesday on the status of the coronavirus pandemic in California a bit differently than normal: With a mantra he says his mother used to repeat.

"She said, 'Stand guard at the door of your mind,'" Newsom said.

"Honestly, it took me a decade-plus to figure out what she was ultimately saying. But she was focused on, more than anything else, our capacity to be resilient and to meet challenges head-on, our capacity as human beings to refocus our energies, a sense of purpose, and a sense of optimism and faith that will get through times of challenges — times like today."

But Newsom said he knows that Californians can’t do it alone. So he asked California's Surgeon General, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, to create a series of guides to help people manage stress during this time of crisis.

Burke Harris said millions of Californians who aren't sick with COVID-19 are still managing a ton of stress — and that stress can manifest in real, physical pain.

"The health impacts of coronavirus go beyond infection and COVID disease," she said. "It’s important to know that these changes aren't just in your head, and to begin to identify how stress shows up for you — physically, emotionally and behaviorally."

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Burke Harris, whose expertise is in childhood trauma and its long-term health impacts, said the way people manifest this stress is different for everyone. Some people drink too much. Some can't sleep. Some get headaches or other physical symptoms. And some may get violent, or be the victim of violence.

The state's website includes a series of hotlines people can call — including for people who are struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts, are victims of violence, or if they are worried about the safety of a child.

Additionally, Burke Harris said, there are things people can do at home to help manage this difficult period.

"While we keep our physical distance, our social supports to maintain emotional and spiritual connection are more important than ever for our physical and mental health," she said.

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Burke Harris urged Californians to exercise, eat right, get enough sleep and try to still connect — albeit virtually — to their social support networks.

"Safe, stable and nurturing relationships help to protect our brains and bodies from the harmful effects of stress and adversity," she said.

She announced two "playbooks" that rely on evidence-based guidance for how to relieve stress. One is for everyone; the second is for parents and caregivers.

Newsom urged Californians to stay optimistic — and to help themselves by helping others.

"Reach out to people. If there was ever a time when you wanted to call Aunt Margie — you hadn't called her in two years, this is the time," he said.

"I had a beautiful letter ... it was sitting there at the gate of my home, right outside, and a note attached from a neighbor down the block, who just wanted to put in a good word," Newsom added.

"Just dropping a note by — it made my day, look at me, it made my week. You can do the same, reach out to neighbors, reach out to loved ones, reach out to strangers."

Above the Noise, KQED Education's video series, talks to a UCSF psychologist about coping tips for teenagers: